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Can former detention center house homeless? County officials note roadblocks

County staff members, sheriff in favor of Bodo building becoming new community corrections center
La Plata County is expected to decide March 9 on the future of the now-vacant Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center in Bodo Industrial Park.

A formal decision about how to use the now-vacant Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center building was put on hold for two weeks Tuesday, but there appears to be mounting obstacles to the idea of converting it to a homeless shelter with associated services.

“We don’t want to drag this out forever,” La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said at a board meeting. “But by the same token, we have a lot of due diligence to do.”

The Colorado Department of Human Services abruptly shut down the youth detention center in August 2018 after accusations arose of inappropriate treatment of youth detainees by the contracted company, Rite of Passage.

With no plans to reopen the facility in Bodo Industrial Park as a youth detention center, the building and property were transferred from state ownership to La Plata County this fall, raising the question of how to put the space to use.

In recent weeks, public comment as well as a petition have been submitted to county officials calling for the vacant building to be renovated into a new homeless shelter, homeless navigation center and food bank.

Under the proposal, it would remove the city of Durango’s plan to create a homeless navigation center at the Manna soup kitchen, which is located near other social service buildings on Avenida del Sol in west Durango.

Porter-Norton, who lives in the area around the city’s social service campus in west Durango, said she sees value in the proposal for moving homeless services to Bodo Industrial Park and away from residential areas.

Neighborhood complaints associated with people living homeless in west Durango have been well-documented in recent years. A few years ago, an illegal homeless camp was shut down and moved to Purple Cliffs, south of town.

Porter-Norton said some people are unfairly labeling impacted residents who want to move homeless services to Bodo Industrial Park as NIMBYs, an acronym for not in my backyard.

Some realities of the situation, however, might make moving homeless services to Bodo untenable, Porter-Norton said.

“At some point, we have to look at the reality,” she said.

For one, running a homeless shelter is expensive, and there remains the question of where the funding would come from and who would manage it. Manna has said it would not be able to operate a navigation center in Bodo.

And, County Manager Chuck Stevens said landowners in Bodo have legal standing and the ability to weigh in on proposed developments.

Any change of land use on a given property within Bodo – which a homeless services center would need at the DeNier location – requires two-thirds of landowners to vote in favor of the proposed change.

“If Bodo landowners are not going to consider favorably changing the proposed use of DeNier to be a homeless navigation center or shelter, then that course of action is not feasible on its face,” Stevens said.

Also, Commissioner Matt Salka said the homeless community should be consulted to see if people living at Purple Cliffs would be interested in an indoor homeless shelter.

It has been noted in past meetings that DeNier is set up as a detention center and would require extensive renovations to accommodate a homeless shelter.

“I do know there is a population where they don’t want to be in any building,” Salka said. “They want to camp and be outside.”

Only one person spoke during public comment, Jerry Harris, a Durango resident who started the petition for DeNier to be used for homeless services. In a brief comment, Harris said the idea should be explored further.

County staff members, as well as the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, have recommended DeNier be used for a new community corrections building, which would move Hilltop House on Avenida del Sol.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said during a previous meeting the La Plata County Jail has 300 beds, and with the county’s growing population and subsequent crime, there will be a need in the future to expand.

The county has plans for an expansion that would cost an estimated $15 million. But using the DeNier building, which is adjacent to the jail, could cost half that amount, Smith said previously.

Stevens said $1 million has been budgeted this year to renovate DeNier for the purpose of moving community corrections. If commissioners chose a different route, that money would have to be rebudgeted next year.

County commissioners on Tuesday directed staff members to continue to explore all options and take public comment. Bodo landowners are expected to meet this week to provide recommendations to the county.

Commissioners will reconvene March 9 and are expected to make a final decision about the future of DeNier.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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